Lack of public awareness of air pollution dangers, say officials

Text message alerts, pollution bulletins in weather forecasts and more causal information on death certificates among ideas highlighted to better communicate dangers of air pollution in Europe, writes Michael Holder

Figures involved in promoting air quality across Europe have called on the EU and its member states to work harder on increasing public awareness of the dangers and impacts of air pollution.

Speakers and panellists at an event signalling the launch the EU Year of Air in Brussels last week (January 8) appealed for more innovative approaches to informing the public about air pollution, with ideas such as text message alerts and air quality bulletins in weather forecasts highlighted.

Keith Taylor, Green MEP for south east England, described air pollution as an "invisible killer" and called for greater efforts to improve public awareness of the health impacts

Keith Taylor, Green MEP for south east England, described air pollution as an “invisible killer” and called for greater effort to improve public awareness of the health impacts

Several figures, such as Health and Environment Alliance executive director Genon Jensen, also spoke of a need for improved, “accessible” dialogue with the public directly from scientists involved in air pollution in order to get health messages across.

There were also calls for greater effort to convince the public, media and industry to recognise the economic benefits of more stringent air quality laws from EU environment commissioner Janez Potočnik.

Green MEP for south east England, Keith Taylor, described air pollution as an “invisible killer” and suggested that “digital displays in city centres, alert systems, and inclusion of air pollution warnings in weather forecasts would help raise awareness of the problem and the dangers.”

Speaking at the event, Mr Jensen said: “The Eurobarometer survey results announced today found that 6/10 Europeans do not feel informed about air quality issues. We don’t have warnings – we need to make that simple for people to see so as to make it easier to implement change. We need to be more drastic and inform people better.”

The calls for action follow the results of a European Commission survey that were announced on the same day, which found that nearly three quarters (74%) of EU citizens have not heard of EU air quality standards and National Emissions Ceilings (see airqualitynews.com story).

Industry

Environment commissioner Mr Potočnik said the major priority for communicating air quality issues was to first get the message across to the public that tightening air quality laws did not have to come at the expense of industry, jobs and economic growth.

He said: “All of us as politicians are trying to maximise human health and quality of life. However, economics, jobs and growth are top of people’s agenda. This is how people think. Is it possible to make a positive influence on both quality of life and the economy? And my answer is always yes – and I think that is an argument that we need to win.”

Finland Green MEP Satu Hassi said that more input from scientists in air pollution communication – even including more causal information on death certificates – would help to convince industry figures and the public of the importance of improving air quality.

She commented: “We also have a problem with the press. They are all saying in my country ‘this is going to ruin the industry’, so we need to hear more from scientists in this discussion – and I mean publicly. If you want to influence the politicians you also have to influence the public. In my country this debate, involving scientists, is practically non-existent.”

She added: “It might also be an idea to put on death certificates that a person has died from air pollution, climate change and other things – I don’t know if this is possible but we need to think of other ways of dealing with this problem.”

However, Mr Jensen argued: “The science is out there but it is not being brought to the media at the right time or being made accessible to people. I don’t think we need more scientific studies, we need to use them more wisely.”

Media

Commenting on media coverage of air pollution, Clean Air in London campaigner Simon Birkett said that the recent 60th anniversary of the great London smog showed that there was an appetite for news on air quality in the UK.

He said: “Communication is very easy with the public – the 60th anniversary of the London smog and pollution episodes in December were front page news in the UK.”

However, Air quality manager at the Greater London Authority (GLA), Elliot Treharne, said the complex scientific nature of many air quality issues often needed to be explained better

He said: “The Evening Standard actually reports quite a lot on air quality, but even as someone who understands a bit about the issue, trying to read it and make sense of what it means to me – or the health impact differences for someone who is very healthy  and someone who is less so – is difficult. So I think a lot can be done to improve the translation of issues surrounding air quality for the public.”

Mr Treharne added: “More could be done to communicate with members of the public – people have mentioned the idea of text message alerts to people in regions and cities like London, for instance.”

Mr Treharne also spoke of the need to “integrate” air quality with other public health issues in order to raise awareness of the importance of reducing exposure to air pollution.

He said: “I think it is also important to bear in mind the need to integrate different messages. So you need to do things that will improve air quality, but you also need to make forms of transport other than cars more attractive which will also help reduce obesity and will have other positive health impacts. I think in the current climate where resources are limited, increasingly we have to think about how we deliver co-benefits and multiple wins from the same action.”

A variety of speakers from European environmental and air quality organisations took part in the ‘Clean Air Everywhere’ conference, which was organised by the European Environment Bureau (EEB) and the ‘Soot Free for the Climate’ campaign.

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